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Honolulu is going to get a new mayor this fall.


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Honolulu is going to get a new mayor this fall. Due to term limitations, Mayor Jeremy Harris can no longer run, so the job is open to a fresh face for the first time in a decade.

As this election year unfolds, we’re bound to hear a lot about who the next mayor might be—who is running, how much are they raising, who is ahead in the polls. But before all that begins, we thought this would be a good time to step back and ask a deeper question. We’re the public, we’re hiring for the position of mayor, candidates for the job are starting to emerge. This is the time to ask, What do we want out of this person? What do we want our next mayor to do?

We put that very question to community groups, neighborhood boards, business associations, even a couple of applicants for the job of mayor. The result is a kind of position description for a most demanding job. From what we’ve been told, the next mayor of Honolulu must:

1. Sweat the small stuff

It came up in interview after interview: If there’s one thing the next mayor of Honolulu needs to do, it’s get back to basics. “Public safety, the police and fire departments, roads, health and sanitation, those are the core functions of government,” says Lowell Kalapa, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a 30-year veteran of watchdogging local politicians. “Our last mayor has focused on the icing, not the cake.”

As an example, Kalapa mentions the great pothole crisis of this past winter, when heavy rains disintegrated our already ragged roads. This forced the current mayor to authorize some $2.5 million in emergency roadwork. “But if the roads had been repaved on a 17-year cycle, as they should have been, we wouldn’t have had the mess,” insists Kalapa. Think about all the money in car registration fees and vehicle weight taxes we’ve been paying all these years. “What has the city been doing with that money, if the potholes are still there?”

Then there are the sewers, which apparently are in as, ahem, crappy a condition as the roads. “The Environmental Protection Agency has given us a deadline of 2005 to upgrade the Sand Island sewage facility, or the city is going to be put under a federal consent decree,” says Kalapa. The city has known about this, but, instead of fixing the problem, has actually been raiding the sewer fund just to keep the city operating.

“Soccer fields and Brunch on the Beach make for nice campaign materials,” says Kalapa. “But sometimes a mayor just has to say, No!”

Also pressing for the city to simplify is Dick Rowland, president of the Grassroot Institute, a public policy analysis institute. “I think the next mayor ought to carefully define the core functions of the city and focus on those,” he says. “That means stopping a lot of what the city has been doing that isn’t any of its business.” The result, he argues, should be lower taxes and a streamlined, more efficient government.

One of the problems is that the city has overextended itself, says former city councilman Mufi Hannemann (who, of course, wants the job of mayor). Debt service is now quickly overtaking public safety as the No. 1 annual expense. “This is no position for the city to be in,” he says. “The next mayor of Honolulu needs to know the difference between nice-to-have’ projects and need-to-have’ projects. The roads have to be maintained, the parks, the sewers. People want to know that when they call 911, emergency workers are going to show up.”

One last example of city overreaching comes from state Sen. Sam Slom: the new Lunalilo Home Road median strip in Hawaii Kai. “Everyone who came to testify testified against it, the neighborhood board opposed it unanimously and the mayor went ahead and built it anyway,” says Slom. “The next mayor of Honolulu needs to understand that, while entertainment events and new trees may be nice, it’s important to take care of core responsibilities.”

OK, the foregoing folks have certain political axes to grind. But they weren’t the only ones to emphasize that our next mayor better sweat the small stuff. Jim Tollefson, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, also thinks the next mayor needs to take care of “basic infrastructure.” Says Tollefson, the next mayor must be able to prioritize. “Many things will need to be done, [so] the new mayor will need to set priorities, say no to some nice-to-have things and focus on what needs to be done.”

Potholes may be popping up county-wide, but some city neighborhoods are plagued with all sorts of aging infrastructure problems, neighborhoods such as downtown Honolulu itself. Lynn Matusow, chair of the downtown neighborhood board, has a list: The city’s expensive security cameras in Chinatown still don’t all work; a new park—20 years in development—still has no playground equipment; blackouts and brownouts are common; dens of criminal activity still thrive on blocks of Hotel Street; the streets need repairs and better lighting. “The city does everything for show, then never pays to maintain it,” she says. “We need to talk about maintenance and not glitz.”

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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